BYU: Solving the Quarterback Dilemma

When Jake Heaps committed to BYU, he did so as the #1 quarterback prospect in his class.


He came into Spring Camp in 2010, and showed that he was immediately able to compete with Riley Nelson for the starting job, but he did not clearly win it. Coaches delayed naming a starter. Throughout fall camp, coaches continued to struggle with the decision, and ultimately they decided to split the starting job between Jake Heaps and Riley Nelson.

Then the worst possible thing happened: it worked. Splitting the reps in practice, and alternating series’ in the game against Washington, BYU was able to defeat the PAC10 school 23-17. The quarterbacks each threw for 131 yards. Nelson did it with 6 fewer attempts, 2 fewer completions, and added two touchdowns, but both were competent. Thanks to the win, the coaches decided to keep the plan in motion.

The next week, Jake and Riley continued to split time at Air Force, but only through the first half. In the second half, when BYU was behind, Riley stayed in the game, but ended with a paltry 73 yards passing (he did have 95 yards rushing).

The loss at Air Force did not change the decision to play both quarterbacks, and the dual-QB system was kept in place for Florida State. In the second quarter, Riley Nelson was sacked and injured his non-throwing shoulder. He would be out the rest of the game, and season. Heaps took over in that game, and was able to score on consecutive drives, and bring the Cougars within 3. In the second half, the Seminoles would up their tally of sacks to a total of 8. Heaps ended the game 15/31 for 114 yards and 1 TD.

He was also the new starting quarterback for the Cougars.

The next few games were up and down struggles, with losses against Nevada, Utah State, and TCU, and close wins against SDSU and Wyoming. Heaps really came alive and had great success in blowout wins against UNLV, Colorado State, and New Mexico. He even played well against Utah, building an early lead. Even when Utah came back in the fourth quarter, Heaps stepped up and led the Cougars on a drive to put them in position to win the game. The attempted field goal was missed, however, and the Cougars fell short. Heaps, in my opinion, did not.

After the setback at Utah, Heaps and co. prepared for their bowl game against UTEP, and this game proved to be a huge night for Jake, as he tallied 264 yards passing and 4 touchdowns.


Entering this season, Heaps was named the starter nice and early. The coaches wanted to avoid the costly mistake of splitting reps in practice, and definitely didn’t want to touch evenly splitting the game time. Everyone saw Heaps’ improvement throughout last season and it was generally assumed that he would continue to improve this year.

Unfortunately, just the opposite has been true. Heaps’ performance has been declining. Starting with the season opening win at Ole Miss, Jake’s completion percentage was 63.2. Each game since, it has diminished: 57.9, 54, 47.1, and 44% against Utah State. Even worse than his game averages, his season average when within 19 yards of the goal line, the “blue zone,” Heaps is only completing 33% of his passes.

Heaps started last week’s Utah State game well, leading the Cougars to ten early points on the first two drives, but could only come up with three points on the next five drives combined. With 5:08 remaining in the third quarter against Utah State, with the Cougars trailing 21-13, Jake Heaps was put on the bench, and Riley Nelson entered the game. What ensued was nothing short of amazing.

Riley seemed to re-energize the offense and the defense. Riley led four consecutive drives that could have led to points. The first ended in a missed field goal, and the third ended on a DiLuigi fumble. But drives two and four ended in Riley Nelson touchdown passes. The final scoring drive started at BYU’s own 4 yard line, and with only 2:36 remaining in the game. Many of the passes weren’t pretty, but they were caught. Riley’s runs weren’t pretty, but they were for first downs. Riley isn’t Heaps, and he won this game because of it.

So what?

Riley saved the game. Coaches and players acknowledge that, and coaches are even holding off naming a starter for the upcoming game against San Jose State until later this week. There has been plenty of discussion regarding which quarterback should start next week. I put up a poll on my site asking fans who they would start next week, and got an amazing 440 responses, with nearly 61% saying they would start Jake Heaps.

Each quarterback has plenty of upside, and plenty of down. Heaps has a rocket arm, but often uses it to overthrow his receivers. Riley has all the intangibles you could want and the grit to go in and get a win when you need it, but he isn’t the most accurate passer (though his throws are most often catchable). Many fans believe that given the opportunity to plan for Riley, other teams will render him ineffective. That certainly has been true of Heaps, especially in the second half of games.

Which leads me to my idea. Do you remember what Texas did to BYU? The BYU defense was so effective against the starter, Garrett Gilbert (2/8 for 8 yards and two INTs), that Texas brought in their backup(s), who we had not planned for, and they were able to come back and win the game.

This is what BYU just did to Utah State. The Aggies defense was more than a match for Heaps, and he was rendered ineffective by halftime. So the Cougars brought in Nelson. A different type of quarterback, to say the least. They were completely unprepared, and were on their heels until the game ended and they had lost.

For those that believe Jake Heaps is our future – I’ll concede that he does have one more year of eligibility than Nelson. I think Heaps may have been better served with a redshirt season and a mission than jumping in as a freshman and getting married, but he is what he is now. I don’t think Heaps is a closer. I have not seen him fight back and rise up this year – though there were glimpses of it last year.

So I propose this: start Heaps every game. Let him build his confidence. If he finds success, let him have it. But if drive after drive are stalling out, and it’s after halftime, with no sign of change – follow the Utah State model and bring in Riley Nelson. Think of him as a relief pitcher. He’s a game changer. He’s a game winner.

It worked for Texas against us, it worked for us against Utah State, and it will work for us in the future.

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